Just To Talk: On the Differences Between Men and Women

Over the past few years of living with my girlfriend, I have gained a lot of insight into the differences between men and women.  Some of these differences have been surprising.  That nobody would ever comment on my eating habits or physical appearance in public (or that their remarks would seem odd, not offending even if they did: “It’s amazing you stay so thin eating like that” would just bounce off me), or assume I would babysit their kids, or expect me to mother them through a crisis were all pretty surprising revelations for me that came about by living with a woman who was subject to those indecencies.

It is in just the same way that the past few years’ revelatory videos of police mistreating or killing African American men has made me reflect on certain events in my life — for example, I believe that the time a good ol’ boy southern cop exuding a Napoleon Complex pulled over a young man with a scraggily beard, Yankee plates, and three kayaks on his car on the pretense of running a stop sign (???) and queried him about drug running substances the young man had never heard of (most of which sounded like “Benzomaltrodextrineiclocyde — you know, Horse Dust!“) — might have ended drastically differently than the young man offering the officer one of the substances he did have (Newcastle Brown Ale) and both of them laughing had the young man had darker skin.

Then there have been the slightly less revelatory but no less interesting male-female insights I’ve learned: for instance how it is perfectly acceptable for guys in their early and mid-twenties to simply “opt out” of dating entirely (basically to pass all of their time in mostly-male echelons doing things like kayaking off waterfalls, playing poker, watching sports, drinking beer, living in a kayak frat house with their buddies, and generally not taking any steps whatsoever to establish serious relationships while being entirely excused for it).  And how everyone’s pretty much okay with this because their biological clocks are not, as the infamous pop-culture saying goes, ticking.  Whereas women are somehow expected (by their parents in particular, but also by society, and by each other as a refraction of the first two) to, even as they trace the increasingly common modern contour of coupling later and later, still maintain some semblance of “looking” — or at least to self-flagellate for not having found, by an age before they’re ready, “Mr. Right.” (And bonus points as well for women being expected, even through their early and mid-twenties, to also maintain the outlines of domesticity — a clean house, a grasp of how to cook and bake, birthdays remembered, cards sent, regular calls home — even if they are living in the equivalent post-college squalor of a kayaking frat-house).  Revelations like this, while not quite as surprising as the first category above, have been no less interesting to learn.

And then there is the third category of male-female differences that I’ve learned by way of living with a woman who is particularly attuned to society’s varied expectations: these have been the revelations that serve only to remind me the extent to which I am living according to a prescribed role: not of a “man,” but of this modern creation: a “guy.” Recently my girlfriend alerted me to one of these.

It was a cold and gray morning, the last in October, and, standing with a group of men on the runway of an airport in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, I was apparently acting like a guy — an all-too-typical guy.

Allow me to explain.  It was the end of October and we — club members of the Franconia Soaring Association — had gathered at our 2,500 foot grass strip airport in Franconia, New Hampshire at the base of the big mountains to close our airport and pack our fleet after a record breaking season.  There were twenty-five of us from across New Hampshire and Maine — all men, most in our forties and fifties.  At 33 I am “young.” Many of those present have or once had careers in the sky: as pilots in the US Air Force, or for big commercial airlines, or as air traffic controllers.  A high school freshman was reveling in having received his private pilot license just weeks before — a full year before he’d be eligible for his driver’s license.  Others — aerospace engineers, architects, even a high school English teacher — were there too.  For hours we had worked: taking the wings off of the planes, packing them into trailers, maneuvering the trailers and stray fuselages into the hangars, closing down the flight shack that doubles as our clubhouse from May through October.

By late afternoon it was starting to rain again (we’d even snuck in a few flights on this day, and one club member was drenched from rain coming through the leaky cockpit canopy cover as he flew over Cannon Ski Area).  Now all the work was done, the planes packed away, and the big doors of the hangar swung closed.  There was nothing else to do but stand on the runway in the cold drizzle and try to prolong the time.  Maybe it was the camaraderie — the six months flying together, fixing planes together, helping our customers tick off a bucket-list wish of flying together, or all the hours of sitting around the airport talking about flying together.  Whatever it was, at that moment nobody wanted the season to be over yet.

So we stood awkwardly for a few minutes, and someone invented something to grab back inside the hangar and we opened the doors once again and then closed them.  We chatted a few minutes longer, and then, imperceptibly, we found ourselves back at the cars.  Then we did what you do at the season’s end — you shake hands with everyone, you wave goodbye — “See you next spring,” — and you get in the car, and you head home.  That’s it.  As Bill Belichick would say, “We’re on to ski season.”

Now to me, this seemed completely normal.  For one thing, I’m never much for goodbyes, and for another I wasn’t exactly looking forward to the time change the next day, or to November.   But as for my flying friends — sure, we won’t fly with each other all winter, but we’ll talk on our online message board.  And I’m sure I’ll see at least one fellow member, a ski instructor, in the lift line at Cannon Mountain.  Other than that, I don’t expect to see any of the others until May.  And that’s fine.  That’s how it goes with seasonal sports.  I got used to this with kayaking: you get to know certain friends in one season or one context and that’s the only time you see them.  Hell, for years I had whole friend groups that I didn’t even recognize without their helmets and drysuits on.  You move on to your ski season crew and that’s that.

But not everyone thinks that having different groups of friends for different seasons is normal behavior.  When I got home from the airport that afternoon and told my girlfriend about how productive we were — putting five airplanes away in five hours — she drew a somewhat different conclusion.

“Classic guy behavior!” she said.  “You spend your whole summer and fall with these guys and then you just drive off?  ‘See you in May’ ?  That’s it?  What a bunch of guys!

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that women would never just drive off.  Women would say, ‘Let’s meet up for coffee next week.’ Or , ‘Do you have my cell number?  I’ll call you next week.’ Do you even have any of those guys’ cell numbers?”

“Well, I might have Jim’s.  Remember when I had to call him to see if we needed to transport that wing from . . .”

“Oh my god.”


“You never just call of those guys, do you?”

“Just call them?  For what?”

“Just to talk.”

“Call each other — just to talk?” I looked at her the way my high school students sometimes do when I tell them something totally off the map (“Wait, read . . .  for fun?”)

Anyway, as we were having this conversation, it was clear to me that we were dealing with a larger gulf between our experiences than I had imagined.  Were guys and girls really that different?  Was our low-key departure scene at the airport not just a a simple evasion of the fact none of us wanted to face (no more flying for six months) but instead a virtual pop culture cliche: the men who can’t talk to each other save by talking about their shared hobby?

It made me think back to a few years ago, when I dragged my girlfriend into work one Sunday for a few minutes to pick up some papers.  While there, we happened to run into a female coworker of mine.  She and my girlfriend began chatting and hit it off.

“Hey, we should get coffee sometime and talk,” my coworker suggested after about two minutes.  This never happened, but I remembered thinking that guys would never do this.  It’s not that it’s a bad idea.  It’s just that it would seem . . .  odd.  But my girlfriend and her friends frequently get lunch together just to talk; meanwhile I have done this exactly zero times in the past year with any of my friends.   Of course, in college, or when you have roommates in your early twenties, it’s different.  You do plenty of stuff together because you live together.  But even then, it’s not as though you’re getting together to idly talk about how you’re coping with the stress of your new job.  And it’s not just generational, I think — both my mother and my girlfriend’s mother have rooms full of female friends with whom they often get coffee, or take walks, or telephone — just to talk (related charmingly as walks with “Mrs. Jones” or “Mrs. Sutton — you remember, Jimmy’s mother from youth soccer?”)  Meanwhile, our fathers, neither of them particularly laconic or retiring men, have no friends like this.  Instead they meet and spend time with their friends as I apparently do — through shared activities: through work, hobbies, or clubs.

It’s odd to realize that I’ve been living what is almost a cultural cliche.  It’s well documented that men and women communicate differently — the sort of “Men are From Mars and Women are From Venus” cultural paradigm repeated endlessly, both in vaguely-academic studies:

“For boys, activities, doing things together, are central. Just sitting and talking is not an essential part of friendship. They’re friends with the boys they do things with.”

. . . and in the kinds of abjectly refractory media sources  that tend to feed back our most entrenched cultural cliches:

“Men don’t complain just to vent; we’re also looking for a solution. If all you want is for us to listen, be sure to tell us beforehand so you don’t get frustrated when we try to solve things.” –Ben H.

(By the way, this last “article” contains all kinds of wince-worthy gender-excusing chestnuts, such as: “If you want to do something nice for a guy, do it, but don’t always expect something in return. Don’t assume your guy will always reciprocate and proceed to get mad when he doesn’t.” — Tyson L. )  Thanks, Ty, I’ll be sure to use that one.

But it begs the question: why is there this difference — real or just depicted — between men and women?  I’m not sure exactly why, but it doesn’t take much imagination or insight to imagine that the difference here is cultural, not, as the study above seems to conclude, biological and innate — some kind of Hemingway or John Wayne-esque code of manliness that doesn’t admit the discussion of “feelings,” or, as this excellent Atlantic article from a few years ago indicates, a kind of blunt male fixation on practicality and a distrust of the entire  notion of conversation-for-conversation’s sake:

“Women commonly complain about the difficulty in gaining any conversational purchase when, say, trying to engage the fathers of their children’s classmates or the husbands of their tennis partners. The woman will grab from her bag of conversational gambits—she’ll allude to some quotidian absurdity or try to form a mock alliance in defiance of some teacher’s or soccer coach’s irksome requirement. But the man doesn’t enter into the give-and-take. The next time they meet, it’s as though they’ve never talked before; the man invariably fails to pick up the ball, and any reference the woman might make to a prior remark or observation falls to the ground. Men don’t indulge in the easy shared confidences and nonsexual flirtations that lubricate social exchange among women. Even in the most casual conversation, men are too often self-absorbed or mono-focused or—more commonly—guarded, distracted, and disengaged to an almost Aspergerian degree.”

This article is a must-read, but behind it is the familiar cultural stereotype of the man-as-practical and the woman-as-emotional that seems to be behind so much of how we think of ourselves.  While I don’t buy it as innate, it was weird to have it pointed out to me as having purchase over my own interactions.  It’s strange to think that so many viewings of “The Godfather” might change the way you act with your own friends.  I was listening to NPR the other week when Teri Gross remarked on the media’s increasing depiction in her lifetime of romantic encounters as involving couples tearing each other’s clothes off — and how this is influencing real couples to imagine they should be doing the same.  After all, we get our cultural scripts from somewhere.  It was strange to think about this working in my own life.

So was our season-ending awkwardness an example of cultural overdetermination?  Or just a quick getaway out of the rain?  In the end, I have no idea.  But I do know one thing.

We’re on to ski season.